Philadelphia's Original Terrible No Good Very Bad Sports Year
If you think Philadelphia sports are a sad scene now, then you weren't around in 1972, when the only thing standing in the way of all-out despair was Steve Carlton.
Jobs were drying up and factories were shutting down in Philadelphia in 1972. Murders and violent crimes were on the rise. The brutal and still unsolved killing of 17-year-old Delores Della Penna haunted the city. Public schools were paralyzed by a 10-week teachers' strike.
Mayor Frank Rizzo, a man who once posed with a nightstick tucked into his cumberbun and publicly declared he was going to be so tough on crime that "I'm going to make Attila the Hun look like a faggot," didn't help matters either. His tough guy attitude only churned a writhing city into a mean and angry place.
"It was a time when the old Philadelphia had completely crumbled," says Frank Fitzpatrick, who was a senior at Temple at the time and would go on to become a longtime Philadelphia Inquirer columnist. "All the institutions and the things we thought of as Philadelphia for so long were just deteriorating. The downtown, the neighborhoods, the factories. And by 1972, it seemed like it was gone. It was shot."
Philadelphia's sports team mirrored the city's saddened state. The Eagles, Flyers, Phillies and god-awful Sixers combined to win 35.3 percent of their games that year, which remains the lowest annual winning percentage ever for a major American city's sports teams. Philly squads posted a combined 110-208-16 record—thanks, especially to the Phillies losing 97 in 154 games.
If you think 2015 was bad, consider that last year Philadelphia teams actually posted a slightly better overall record—120-206—during a time when things were looking up for the city. There is a new, progressive mayor in Jim Kenny, and instead of fleeing, businesses and young people are making their way to Philly. Back in 1972, the city could have found some optimism in its sports teams. But they didn't.
"You had no relief," Fitzpatrick recalled. "Sports weren't quite the overwhelming presence they are now, but they were certainly a venue for escape and there was no escaping it back then."
Whether fair or not, Philadelphia fans have a reputation for being salty and doing things like booing a lot and throwing snowballs at Santa Claus. They are considered the toughest crowd in sports, annually named among the worst fans in pro sports.
In tracing the DNA of frustrated Philadelphia fans, no year was more formative than 1972. A lot of losing came before and after, but 1972 was the low point, the rock bottom.
"It was just terrible," says Howard Eskin, a longtime sports talk radio host on WIP, the city's signature sounding board for disgruntled fans. "As a Philadelphian, you learn, growing up, that you gotta accept this. You grow up learning these teams aren't good for a lot of years, so you just deal with it."
The Sixers, as they are today, were the biggest losers in 1972. Remarkably, they were just five years removed from ruling the basketball universe. They won the title in 1967 with a dominant Wilt Chamberlain. But the team began to crumble at the end of the 1971-72 season when coach Jack Ramsay left. They missed the playoffs for the first time in franchise history and the 1972-73 team started the year 0-15, later lost 20 straight, and won only nine games the entire year. Until 2012, those Sixers were the worst team in NBA history.
"The 76ers were an absolute dreck," Eskin says. "They were really garbage."
The other tenants at the Spectrum in 1972 were the recently-arrived Flyers, who came into the league as part of the Class of 1967 that doubled the league in size from the Original Six. The 1971-72 Flyers won 15 games during the calendar year but the 1972-73 Flyers ended up being a bright spot. They won their first playoff series at the conclusion of the season, and the city was just warming up to the Broad Street Bullies.
In Philly, no team is as revered as the Eagles. Yet, no team has gone longer without a championship. The Birds have three championships in 75 years. The last time they won it all was 1960. The 1972 Eagles went 2-11-1 and extended a playoff drought to 12 years.
Following the season, general manager Pete Retzlaff resigned, and coach Ed Khayat was fired by owner Leonard Tose.
"We had so many bad teams and things were so awful for so long that we developed a shell," Fitzpatrick says. "It's like if we expect the worst and the worst happens, we can't be hurt. When a great season happens, that's wonderful. We'll accept that, we'll jump on the bandwagon. But when a bad season we all expect happens, you can't hurt us. I really think that's the mindset of a real Philadelphia fan."
For the Phillies, Steve Carlton was a bright spot. For the downtrodden city of Philadelphia, he was a savior.
"I just dropped out of college, I was a complete bum," says comedian and legendary Philadelphia sports radio host Big Daddy Graham. "I wasn't working, nothing. I was living in Southwest Philly and even at the age of 19, a bunch of us would ride our bikes down to the Vet. Back then you could get into Phillies games for free at the bottom of the seventh inning. I went to many a game, from beginning to end, but if Carlton was pitching and we didn't have any money, we would get on our bikes, ride past the refineries and we'd chain our bikes up right next to the entrance."
"To win 27 games on a team that didn't win 60 was just remarkable," Graham says. "So as bad as that year was, I have a really great memory of it because of him."
The 1972 Phillies finished last in the NL East and won only 59 games, of which Carlton won 27—a quarter of all the combined wins by four different Philadelphia teams that year. Carlton won 46 percent of the Phillies' games that season, a modern baseball record. Carlton led the league with 30 complete games, 310 strikeouts and a 1.97 ERA. Between July 23 and Aug. 13, he tossed five complete games, four shutouts and allowed a single earned run.
"Because of Steve Carlton alone," Graham said, "I will never look at 1972 as the worst year ever."
There was plenty to be down about in 1972 in Philadelphia. The economy was in shambles, schools were in disarray and the very essence of the city was changing. Making it all that much worse, there was no escape to be found in sports. Except every fifth day, when Lefty got the ball.
"Every fourth or fifth day, you were interested in tuning into the Phillies on your radio to listen to the game," Fitzpatrick says. "You couldn't wait for him to pitch because it was something that all of baseball was commenting on. It was a while since anyone in the baseball world had any reason to speak about Philadelphia.
"Until 2015," he says, "I don't remember a season quite as grim."